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the Catholics on the night of St. Bartholomew, was to be killed at evening and eaten by the household, with very peculiar rites, during the hours of darkness while the butchery was proceeding; none of the flesh was to see the morning light; whatever the family could not eat was to be burned with fire. All this was done. The massacre of Egyptian children and animals was successfully perpetrated and had the desired effect; and to commemorate this great triumph God ordained that all the firstborn of man and beast among the Israelites should be sacred to him ever afterwards in the manner already described, the edible animals to be sacrificed, and the uneatable, especially men and asses, to be ransomed by a substitute or by a pecuniary payment of so much a head. And a festival was to be celebrated every spring with rites exactly like those which were observed on the night of the great slaughter. The divine command was obeyed, and the festival thus instituted was the Passover.1
The one thing that looms clear through the haze of this weird tradition is the memory of a great massacre of firstborn. This was the origin, we are told, both of the sanctity of the firstborn and the feast of the Passover. But when we are further told that the people whose firstborn were slaughtered on that occasion were not the Hebrews but their enemies, we are at once met by serious difficulties. Why, we may ask, should the Israelites kill the firstlings of their cattle for ever because God once killed those of the Egyptians? and why should every Hebrew father have to pay God a ransom for his firstborn child because God once slew all the firstborn children of the Egyptians? In this form the tradition offers no intelligible explanation of the custom. But it at once becomes clear and intelligible when we assume that in the original version of the story it was the Hebrew firstborn that were slain; that in fact the slaughter of the firstborn children was formerly, what the slaughter of the firstborn cattle always continued to be, not an isolated butchery but a regular custom, which with the growth of more humane sentiments was afterwards softened into the vicarious sacrifice of a lamb and the payment of a ransom for each child. Here the reader may be reminded of another Hebrew tradition in which the sacrifice of the firstborn child is indicated still more clearly. Abraham, we are informed, was commanded by God to offer up his firstborn son Isaac as a burnt sacrifice, and was on the point of obeying the divine command, when God, content with this proof of his faith and obedience, substituted for the human victim a ram, which Abraham accordingly sacrificed instead of his son.1 Putting the two traditions together and observing how exactly they dovetail into each other and into the later Hebrew practice of actually sacrificing the firstborn children by fire to Baal or Moloch, we can hardly resist the conclusion that, before the practice of redeeming them was introduced, the Hebrews, like the other branches of the Semitic race, regularly sacrificed their firstborn children by the fire or the knife. The Passover, if this view is right, was the occasion when the awful sacrifice was offered; and the tradition of its origin has preserved in its main outlines a vivid memory of the horrors of these fearful nights. They must have been like the nights called Evil on the west coast of Africa, in Dahomey and Ashantee, when the people keep indoors, because the executioners are going about the streets and the heads of the human victims are falling in the king's palace. But seen in the lurid light of superstition or of legend they were no common mortals, no vulgar executioners, who did the dreadful work at the first Passover. The Angel of Death was abroad that night; into every house he entered, and a sound of lamentation followed him as he came forth with his dripping sword. The blood that bespattered the lintel and door-posts would at first be the blood of the firstborn child of the house; and when the blood of a lamb was afterwards substituted, we may suppose that it was intended not so much to appease as to cheat the ghastly visitant. Seeing the red drops in the doorway he would say to himself, "That is the blood of their child. I need not turn in there. I have many yet to slay before the
1 Exodus xi.-xiii. 16; Numbers their blood on the gateways of the
iii. 13, viii. 17. In Western Africa, village (Miss Mary H. Kingsley,
when a pestilence or an attack of Travels in West Africa, p. 454, com
enemies is expected, it is customary to pare p. 451). sacrilice sheep and goats and smear
morning breaks gray in the east." And he would pass on in haste. And the trembling parents, as they clasped their little one to their breast, might fancy that they heard his footfalls growing fainter and fainter down the street. In plain words, we may surmise that the slaughter was originally done by masked men, like the Mumbo Jumbos and similar figures of West Africa, who went from house to house and were believed by the uninitiated to be the deity or his divine messengers come in person to carry off the victims. When the leaders had decided to allow the sacrifice of animals instead of children, they would give the people a hint that if they only killed a lamb and smeared its blood on the door-posts, the bloodthirsty but near-sighted deity would never know the difference.
If this be indeed the origin of the Passover and of the sanctity of the firstborn among the Hebrews, the whole of the Semitic evidence on the subject is seen to fall into line at once. The children whom the Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Canaanites, Moabites, Sepharvites, and probably other branches of the Semitic race burnt in the fire would be their firstborn only, although in general ancient writers have failed to indicate this limitation of the custom. For the Moabites, indeed, the limitation is clearly indicated, if not expressly stated, when we read that the king of Moab offered his eldest son, who should have reigned after him, as a burnt sacrifice on the wall.1 For the Phoenicians it comes out less distinctly in the statement of Porphyry that the Phoenicians used to sacrifice one of their dearest to Baal, and in the legend recorded by Philo of Byblus that Cronus sacrificed his only-begotten son.2 We may suppose that the custom of sacrificing the firstborn both of men and animals was a very ancient Semitic institution, which many branches of the race kept up within historical times; but that the Hebrews, while they maintained the custom in regard to domestic cattle, were led by their loftier morality to discard it in respect of children, and to replace it by a merciful law that firstborn children should be ransomed instead of sacrificed.8
- See above, p. 39. Die Lebcmaltcr in der jiidischen Liter
8 As to the redemption of the first- a'nr (Szegedin, 1875), pp. 110-118.
The conclusion that the Hebrew custom of redeeming the firstborn is a modification of an older custom of sacrificing them has been mentioned by some very distinguished scholars only to be rejected on the ground, apparently, of its extreme improbability.1 To me the converging lines of evidence which point to this conclusion seem too numerous and too distinct to be thus lightly brushed aside. And the argument from improbability can easily be rebutted by pointing to other peoples who are known to have practised or to be still practising a custom of the same sort . In some tribes of New South Wales the firstborn child of every woman was eaten by the tribe as part of a religious ceremony.' Amongst the people, of Senjero in Eastern Africa we are told that many families must offer up their firstborn sons as sacrifices, because once upon a time, when summer and winter were jumbled together in a bad season, and the fruits of the earth would not ripen, the soothsayers enjoined it. At that time a great pillar of iron is said to have stood at the entrance of the capital, which in accordance with the advice of the soothsayers was broken down by order of the king, whereupon the seasons became regular again. To avert the recurrence of such a calamity the wizards commanded the king to pour human blood once a year on the base of the broken shaft of the pillar, and also upon the throne. Since then certain families have been obliged to deliver up their firstborn sons, who are sacrificed at an appointed time.8 Among some tribes of South-Eastern Africa it is a rule that when a woman's husband has been killed in battle and she marries again, the first child she gives birth to after her second marriage must be put to death, whether she has it by
1 J. Wellhausen, Prolegomena ziir the idea being that this will give the Geschuhte Israels,3:p. 90; \V. Robert- weak child the strength of the stronger ion Smith, Religion of the Semites* one" (Spencer and Gillen, Native p. 464. Tribes of Central Australia, p. 475).
3 J. L. Krapf, Travels, Researches,
2 Urough Smyth, Aborigines of and Missionary Labours during an Victoria, ii. 311. In the Luritcha eighteen years' Residence in Eastern tribe of Central Australia "young Africa (London, 1S60), p. 69 so. Dr. children are sometimes killed and Krapf, who reports the custom at eaten, and it is not an infrequent second hand, thinks that the existence custom, when a child is in weak health, of the pillar may be doubted, but that to kill a younger and healthy one and the rest of the story harmonises well then to feed the weakling pn its flesh, enough with African superstition.
her first or her second husband. Such a child is called "the child of the assegai," and if it were not killed, death or an accident would be sure to befall the second spouse, and the woman herself would be barren. The notion is that the woman must have had some share in the misfortune that overtook her first husband, and that the only way of removing the malign influence is to slay "the child of the assegai."1 The heathen Russians often sacrificed their firstborn to the god Perun.2 The Kutonaqa Indians of British Columbia worship the sun and sacrifice their firstborn children to him. When a woman is with child she prays to the sun, saying, "I am with child. When it is born I shall offer it to you. Have pity upon us." Thus they expect to secure health and good fortune for their families.8 Among the Coast Salish Indians of the same region the first child is often sacrificed to the sun in order to ensure the health and prosperity of the whole family.4 The Indians of Florida sacrificed their firstborn male children.5 Among the Indians of North Carolina down to the early part of the eighteenth century a remarkable ceremony was performed, which seems to be most naturally interpreted as a modification of an older custom of putting the king's son to death, perhaps as a substitute for his father. It is thus described by a writer of that period: "They have a strange custom or ceremony amongst them, to call to mind the persecutions and death of the kings their ancestors slain by their enemies at certain seasons, and particularly when the savages have been at war with any nation, and return from their country without bringing home some prisoners of war, or the heads
1 J. Macdonald, Light in Africa, p. 156. In the text I have embodied some fuller explanations and particulars which my friend the Rev. Mr. Macdonald was good enough to send me in a letter dated September i6th, 1899. Among the tribes with which Mr. Macdonald is best acquainted the custom is obsolete and lives only in tradition; formerly it was universally practised.
1 F. J. Mone, Geschichte des Heiden1/1 ums im nbrdlichen Europa, i. 119.
1 Fr. Boas, in "Fourth Annual
Report on the North - Western tribes of Canada," Report of the British Association for 1888, p. 242; id., in Fifth Report on the North - Western Tribes of Canada, p. 52 (separate reprint from the Report of the British Association for 1S89).
4 Fr. Boas, in Fifth Report on the North- Western Tribes of Canada, p. 46 (separate reprint from the Report of the British Association for 1889).
5 Strachey, Historie of travaille into Virginia Britannia (Hakluyt Society), p. 84.